No ‘off’ in offseason

Online Poster

By Lisa Koulias

This year’s Illini basketball team started their season at the end of last season – right after they lost to Duke 72-62 in the Sweet Sixteen of last year’s NCAA tournament.

This year they want more, but know that in order to reach the Final Four or win a national title, the team would have to put in the hours in the offseason to get there.

“I think that all gave them a boost of confidence, a taste of it, and now I think they want more,” head coach Bruce Weber said of the Sweet Sixteen appearance. “But they realize that it’s just not going to come, they have to work at it and improve. I heard Pat Riley say one time that if in the summer if everyone improves two percent, you’re starting five alone will have 10 percent improvement. That’s what we need, little improvements by different guys that add up to a big piece that can make us much better.”

Some of the players took it upon themselves to get the job done, especially the big men on the team. Weber said that in order for this team to get far, the big men would have to step up.

“(The bigs) have been working really hard, getting better and providing what we need to win,” said Illinois junior guard Dee Brown said.

Two guys that really worked hard to improve this summer were senior center Nick Smith and junior forward James Augustine.

Smith averaged 6.8 points a game last year. Smith, who averaged 16.7 minutes a game, has already showed his presence on the team this year. In the team’s first two exhibition games, Smith has scored 12 points.

“First he came in the gym over the summer, on his own,” Weber said of Smith. “I don’t think that happened before. No one walked with him; this was by himself. So I think there is a commitment there for him. He realizes this is it; there are no more years. He’s used them all up. I’m hoping that his game plan or his approach to the season will be much more ready.”

Augustine started in 33 games last year, averaging 9.6 points and 7.3 rebounds a game.

Weber said Augustine attended several camps over the summer for big men and put on some weight.

“He’s probably put on 8-10 pounds, a little more strength,” Weber said. “I think he has a little more confidence. This summer he was part of the Reebok camp (as a counselor) and he was definitely one of the better prospects there with all the feedback we got. Then he went to (Clifford Ray’s big man camp) and I think that give him a little bit of confidence because he was playing against not only high school kids but pro players. He came back and said ‘I can compete with those guys.'”

Augustine said he did a lot of work outside of attending camps, but says although he feels better prepared for the season; it’s still too early to determine that.

“(Assistant) coach (Jay) Price had me in the weight room a lot, trying to eat a lot, gaining that weight, I think I gained about 10 pounds,” Augustine said. “It’s just going out there and slowing the game down in your head. I feel prepared. You can’t really determine until you get in the games how much, but so far in practice and stuff I feel pretty good.”

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